Analysis: Feminism is needed now more than ever

Sian Maseko, Senior Gender Advisor, We Effect.

How should development organisations ensure women’s rights in the age of a global health pandemic? Sian Maseko, Global Gender Advisor and head of Technical Unit at We Effect, calls for a feminist response to the coronavirus and its impact. As well as identifying key opportunities for actions we can take under such challenging circumstances.

The global health pandemic is having a significant impact on many aspects of our lives as individuals, in our social and working relationships and in the social dynamics and ways in which our societies and cultures are formulated and structured. The impacts will take some time for us to comprehend. However, there is no doubt that this pandemic has highlighted many critical issues. One critical issue is the extent to which this pandemic has impacted on women’s rights and what this means for advocates of women’s rights and gender equality in the future. These conversations are so critical, but as an organization now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to ask questions about what this global pandemic means for women and women’s rights. It is not enough for us to say that as an organization we advocate for gender equality and the rights of women and marginalised communities. It is during times of crisis that we must be true to our values as an organization. It is during a crisis that we must step up and act. We need to create space and opportunities, whether these are digital meetings, online discussions or forums or even phone calls for our partners so we can hear their concerns and understand the complexity of the situation for them and their work. We need to amplify the voices of our partner organizations in the work they are doing in such complex and changing times. This crisis will test systems and structures globally, but as an organization it will also test our values, our capacity to adapt and respond to changing global circumstances and affirm the human rights of all the individuals with whom we work.

Feminism is more necessary now than ever.

It will take some time for us all to understand and analyze the impact that this global health pandemic has had on the world. However, even now we are starting to understand what this crisis might mean for women’s rights and we can’t ignore it.

What can lockdown really mean for some women?

One of the most critical issues is what ‘social distancing’, quarantine and home-based isolation actually means for some women. There is already evidence that gender-based violence has been exacerbated as a result of this crisis and the need for women to stay at home[1]. In cases of intimate partner violence or domestic violence – home can be the most dangerous place for women. The evidence coming from China indicated that reports of domestic violence to the police had tripled in one county alone during lockdown in February[2]. There have been reports from China, Greece, Brazil, France and the UK of a significant increase in calls to helplines and women’s services. Perpetrators of gender-based violence (GBV) often deliberately prevent women from leaving the house, track or stalk them if they do leave the house, deny them economic resources to be able to leave the house or insist on accompanying them (or ensuring another man or even male children accompany them)[3]. This experience of gender-based violence often means women are and feel physically and psychosocially trapped. Sometimes taking children to school or go to church or a visit to family is the only opportunity a woman in a violent relationship might have to leave the house, not necessarily to seek services, but just to leave the house. The increase in the number of calls to helplines indicates the importance of GBV services for women. However, it is important to remember that these calls are only made by women who were able to contact a helpline. What about the women who do have access to a phone or a helpline? As women lose their coping mechanisms of contact with family or friends then this global health pandemic could feel even more despairing and terrifying. As one case in Palestine highlights the risk to women’s lives has also increased as one woman was murdered.[4]. One important aspect to highlight is that there is a serious shortage of data about women’s experiences so this evidence so far might only be a fraction of the cases of domestic violence.

How much priority do governments give gender-based violence and violence against women services?

Furthermore, this pandemic has highlighted the extent to which most societies and countries do not take violence against women seriously. Many women and men working in GBV services are not recognized as key workers and allowed to continue working or given dispensation. They provide an essential and life-saving service, but in many countries, this is not recognized by the governments as essential and many of those providing these services are not given the protection and security of the status of key workers. As a result, many services are significantly reduced, refuges (in countries able and with resources to offer that service) are having to close or work with limited staff, but more importantly, in the longer term this threatens the whole GBV/VAW sector.

There are many other implications for women’s rights that might take some time to become evident and will require us to reflect and rethink how we work as an organization and how we support our partner organisations.

School closures and burden of care on women:

In a recent environment, social impact assessment (ESIA) conducted by We Effect and partner organisations in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, women highlighted the burden of care, in both productive and reproductive spheres. One woman commented, ‘as for me I don’t rest, I do all the chores, the children return from school late and they will just arrive home at dusk. Am [sic] the one who does all the work’[5]. This is not something new, but considering the closure of schools we need to consider what this means for women. Based on our work we are very aware of the excessive burden of care on women in child-bearing and raising. If children remain at home, then it is likely that the expectation will fall on women to home school. How will women balance the need or desire to work from home with the pressure to home school? What does this mean for single mothers[6]? As lockdowns and ‘social distancing’ is enforced the support systems and networks that are so crucial for women are also reduced, which further increases the burden of care on women.

Social distancing – exposing the structural and class inequalities:

Zimbabwe went into lockdown on Monday this week, people forced to remain at home and imposed social distancing – the latest country to enforce such measures. However, as one prominent South African feminist shares the stark reality that for many social distancing ‘may keep people alive, but there will be a cost. Communities that already feel under siege will be further wounded’[7]. Another feminist writes about her experience of living in Lagos, Nigeria where ‘even if we wanted to, we simply don’t have the space to socially distance from one another…the idea of social distancing is not just alien to us, it is impossible for social and economic reasons too’[8]. I am sure that this resonates with many of the countries in which We Effect work. Social interaction and social engagement are a pleasure as well as an economic necessity. What does social distancing and staying at home mean for informal sector workers? In many countries, the majority of informal sector workers are women. If people must stay at home and are not able to go to markets to buy produce or pay caterers for a wedding or party or offer piece work, then what does this mean for women working in these sectors? The informal sector is characterized by insecurity, lack of social protections and threats of violence from local police and military, which in times of crisis mean that women in the informal sector have no financial safety net, insurance or contingency plan. This is emphasized by the National Roma Centrum in North Macedonia noting that many Roma women, already marginalized and excluded, work in the informal sector and have lost their jobs and will face extreme economic hardship. This emphasizes the fact that women are not an homogeneous group and the importance of understanding the impact on women in a nuanced way that recognizes their multiple identities.

In a recent development, highlighted by our partner organization in Uganda, ACFODE, a group of women street vendor, selling food items, were attacked by law enforcement officials, police and Local Defense Units. As ACFODE highlighted in their statement of solidarity, ‘women informal laborers, including the street vendors attacked yesterday, are in a particularly precarious and vulnerable position at the moment. Thus, it is particularly disturbing and unconscionable that these women, instead of receiving help in this time of crisis, have been brutalized by agents of their own government’[9].

Another issue in many of the countries in which we work is public transport and the fact that many households rely on public transport and this includes our staff as well as the communities with whom we work. The closure of public transport or the heightened risk of travelling on packed public transport emphasizes the inequalities that this pandemic reveals as so many people do not have the privilege of being able to cycle or walk or use a car to get to work or seek services.

Food insecurity impacts women more than men and as the informal sector is shutdown during this crisis it will heighten the food insecurity faced by many communities. As We Effect’s Regional Programme Director for Latin America noted, this crisis highlights the importance of all our work on food sovereignty and sustainable land management practices that mean farmers can sustain themselves and their families. If this pandemic leads, as many experts are predicting, to a global recession then this will mean a humanitarian crisis for many of the countries in which we work. We need to be prepared to ensure a gender lens in any humanitarian response so that the gains made in our development work are not undermined by a global economic and humanitarian crisis.

 The economic consequences of so-called social distancing will be significant, but the social costs are also very high.

Human rights in the age of draconian measures to ‘protect us from the virus’:

Many countries have introduced strict measures and laws in response to the coronavirus. Police in the UK use drones to name and shame individuals violating ‘stay-at-home’ rules[10], South African police fired rubber bullets at people queuing outside a supermarket in Johannesburg[11] and tear gas is sprayed at shoppers in Kenya[12] . In addition, many countries plan to deploy the military to help the response to coronavirus. The stringent legislation, the use of force and increased by surveillance by governments and police and the deployment of the military in many countries have highlighted the fragility of human rights in many countries from Europe to Latin America to Southern Africa, MENA and South East Asia. For many women living in states of fragility, states of conflict, occupation or post-conflict, draconian laws that limit freedom of movement, increased police and military power could have far-reaching consequences on the bodily autonomy and freedom of women (many of whom already have freedoms curtailed and rights suppressed or violated). What does this mean for We Effect’s work on human rights and shrinking civic space? What does this mean for human rights defenders? In the Philippines human rights activists have expressed concern that recently introduced new measures including arresting activists without warrants and subjecting those who spread “false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis” to a prison sentence and a fine would have longer term implications and make it easier for the government to target them.[13]

The powers many governments are currently exercising give police extra powers of detention and limit our duty of care towards more vulnerable and marginalized individuals. What does this mean in many countries where we work with communities already marginalized and excluded or living under repressive regimes or constantly facing threats to their lives and bodies? For women these increased restrictions could have serious consequences – at best progress on women’s rights is halted, but at worse women’s rights are violated, threatened and clawed back.

Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and progress on women’s rights:

It is impossible not to comment on the impact of this pandemic on women’s rights without highlighting the significance of the scale-down of CSW. The CSW was reduced to a one-day ‘procedural meeting’. The impact that this had on women’s rights and most importantly the participation of women and women’s organisations is best summarized in this statement, ‘this state of play did not only make me think and reflect on the women rights politics in the world, it made me accept, for once, the tough truth that we, feminists, and women’s rights organizations especially from the Global South, have always been a token to the process, we are not needed, it can be done without us, to put it mildly’[14]. We Effect signed a petition for the meeting to be postponed rather than scaled down in recognition of the fact that it is a space for women to have their voices heard, to lobby and advocate for affirmation of women’s rights and this space must be maintained and should never be sacrificed. This was the first indicator of how much this pandemic will impact on the progress towards women’s rights.

Women-led spaces, solidarity and collective action

In conversations with women in the UK, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nicaragua and Tanzania the importance of women-led safe spaces can never be emphasized too much. This pandemic shows us the importance of recognizing and celebrating our interconnectivity and our need to work together globally, across borders. These spaces are critical for our well-being as women, as feminists, as survivors, as activists, as business women, as leaders, as entrepreneurs, as breadwinners and as fighters. So, what does this mean during a global pandemic that relies on social distancing and the banning of gatherings of more than two in some countries? It means that we need to ensure women have other ways to communicate and find solidarity online. We Effect has just launched the initiative #coronavoices to ensure that we document the impact and experiences of our partners and colleagues during this time.

We can act, we don’t need to feel helpless

But we can do it, this is an opportunity for men and boys to share the burden of care at household level, but we need to communicate this positively and constructively. We should lobby for women to play a central role at central and local government level in managing the response to this pandemic. UNICEF have highlighted five actions for gender equality during this crisis. These five actions are: (1) Care of caregivers, (2) Prepare for increases in gender-based violence throughout the COVID-19 outbreak (3) Maintain core health and education services and systems (4) Engage women’s and youth rights networks to support connectivity and the flow of vital information (5) Ensure gender data are available, analyzed and actionable[15]. We Effect is uniquely placed particularly to support the last two points. We Effect’s work with cooperatives, member based organisations, coalitions and networks provide a critical opportunity for us to support our partner organisations to share and disseminate information – how can we support our partners to use the tools of communication that have already been developed to share information at this critical time? Finally, we have access to rich and extensive data – how can we build on this? How can we ensure we are collecting data on women’s rights and the impact of the crisis on our important work for gender equality?

We need to start thinking about what changes we might need to make after this pandemic has subsided. What opportunities will there be to transform gender relationships, ensure community-led housing projects, strengthen our women’s economic empowerment and women’s access to financial services that ensure a critical security net and strengthen our programming on gender-based violence?

Let’s learn from the past…. ‘During the Zika virus outbreak, differences in power between men and women meant that women did not have autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives, which was compounded by their inadequate access to health care and insufficient financial resources to travel to hospitals for check-ups for their children, despite women doing most of the community vector control activities’ and during the Ebola crisis women’s role as caregivers made them more likely to become infected[16].

But for now, we need to reach out more than ever and make sure that we are asking questions about women and women’s rights. We need to listen, we need to hear, we need to reflect and we need to act. We need to be louder than ever about the importance of working with feminist principles. More importantly we need our partners to know that in this crisis, more than ever, gender equality and women’s rights matters to organisations like We Effect. We must allow ourselves to be tested in this crisis and we must prove our commitment and dedication to women’s rights and gender equality.

Let’s ensure a feminist response.





[3] Stark, E. (2009) Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence)

[4]Umm al-Fahm: the killing of the young Zamzam Mahameed in a shooting attack in

[5] ESIA data collection process conducted by We Effect for Sustainable Cotton Project.




[9]Urgent joint statement on violence against women street vendors in Kampala, ACFODE








Written by

Sian Maseko